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Service of Prayer for Christian Unity

 

              Acts 2:42 -47       Ezekiel 37:15-23

 

I: — For years now I’ve been haunted by that old hymn we all learned to sing as children; you know, the one about Christian soldiers. It’s so very deep in us we’ll never forget it:

Like a fleeing army

Moves the Church of God ;

Brother treads on brother,

Grinds him in the sod.

 

We are not united,

Lots of bodies we:

One lacks faith, another hope,

And all lack charity.

 

Backward, Christian soldiers,

Waging fruitless wars,

Breaking out in schisms

That our God deplores.

 

Tonight we have gathered at a service of prayer for Christian unity. The prayer is understandable. After all, disunity and its dreadful aftermath stare us in the face.  Think of the Wars of Religion, 1618-1648: thirty years of bloodshed as Protestant slew Roman Catholic and Roman Catholic slew Protestant until the death rate reached 80% in many European towns and cities. In the wake of this religious bloodbath Enlightenment thinkers were either agnostics or deists: either they were indifferent to God’s existence or they believed in a remote deity that had nothing to do with Jesus Christ, since belligerent zeal in the name of Jesus had left many European communities with only 20% of their people.

We aren’t about to kill each other.  But don’t we suspect each other?  Don’t we even reject each other, in many respects?  After all, we represent umpteen different denominations.  Surely we need prayer for Christian unity as we need little else.  Right?

Wrong.  I disagree emphatically with what I’ve just said.  I don’t think we need to pray for Christian unity because I’m persuaded that we are already one in Christ.  I believe Christian unity is a gift that Jesus Christ has already given his people.

Think for a minute about the Lord’s Prayer. We pray “Thy kingdom come.” On the one hand when we look out upon the world the kingdom appears far off: swords and spears haven’t been beaten into ploughshares and pruning hooks; the lion doesn’t lie down with the lamb; poverty and disease, exploitation and betrayal haven’t ceased.  It’s little wonder we pray for the coming of the kingdom.

On the other hand, as I remind my theology students constantly, there can’t be a king without a kingdom or a kingdom without a king. If Christ the king is in our midst, then the kingdom is here, now.  If the kingdom isn’t here now, then neither is Christ our ruler.

But Christ is king.  When we pray for the coming of the kingdom we are actually praying for the coming manifestation of a kingdom that is already here.  We are praying for the coming manifestation of a kingdom that only the kingdom-sighted can see at present, which kingdom therefore remains disputable to those who are kingdom-blind.

Tonight we are praying not for the unity of Christ’s people but for the manifestation of our unity, for until our unity is made manifest to the world our unity will remain disputable in the eyes of the world.

Do I exaggerate when I insist that Christ’s people are one now? Tell me: can Jesus Christ be divided? Can his body be divided in the sense of dismembered (one limb here, another there, the ecclesiastical equivalent of an explosion)?         Can Jesus Christ be severed from his body?  Unquestionably he is one. Since he is one, he and his body are one.         In other words, Christian unity isn’t something we work at or work up. Christian unity is Christ’s gift to us. Christ gives us himself; in giving us himself he gives us all of himself, head and body, head and body undismembered and unsevered.  Christian unity isn’t an achievement we are trying to pull off.   Christian unity is Christ’s achievement, an achievement and gift that we can’t undo however much we may contradict it or deny it.  Christian unity is never what we work at or work up; it is, however, what we must always work out, do.

 

IIa:– The first thing we must do in manifesting our unity is what’s mentioned in the text: we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.  The apostles’ teaching, written, is the New Testament.  By extension, the apostles’ teaching, continuous with the prophets’ teaching, is scripture as a whole.  We must attend to scripture.

No doubt someone will object right away.  “Faith is a living relationship with a living person, Jesus.  Surely we’re to become and remain intimately acquainted with him rather than poking around in a dusty old book in the attempt at finding out something about God.”

This point has to be taken seriously.  Christians have been called “People of the book (i.e., the bible.)” Are we people of the book? In one sense, no.  Faith binds us to Jesus Christ in a relationship more intimate than any relationship we have or can have with anyone else.  We love him.  We obey him.  We aspire to please him. It’s all first-hand intimacy with him. Second-hand hearsay about him is categorically different from first-hand encounter with him.

When Mary Magdalene found herself startled on Easter morning she was face-to-face with Jesus Christ.  By the end of the conversation she knew she had encountered again the one who had turned her life around years earlier.         The selfsame Lord, present to us now, does as much today as he overtakes us and seizes us, transforms us and commissions us.

People of a book?  We Christians are people of a person, the person of the living Lord Jesus Christ.

And yet we Christians are people of the book, for scripture is the apostles’ teaching written.  We have to be people of the book, because we know that false prophets abound, and pseudo-apostles (“wolves” is how Luke speaks of them) are everywhere. In addition there’s no limit to superstition, subjectivism, religious romanticism, frenzied fantasy, self-serving self-deception, and sheer, imaginative invention. We have to be people of the book (people of the apostles’ teaching) in that hearing and heeding Jesus Christ in person always takes the form of hearing and heeding the apostles. To be sure, hearing and heeding Peter, Paul, James and John isn’t the same as hearing and heeding Jesus. They are not he, and he is not they. Nonetheless, hearing and obeying Jesus always takes the form of hearing and obeying the apostles’ teaching.

In her work of acquainting people with Christ the church must always be devoted to the apostles’ teaching.  In her diaconal service on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed the church must always look to the apostles’ teaching.  When Mother Teresa was asked why she and her sisters arose at 4:00 a.m. daily and went to mass before attending to Calcutta’s neediest, Mother Teresa replied, “If we didn’t begin the day with mass (scripture, sermon, sacrament) what we’re about would be no different from social work.”

Anything the church does – sermon preparation, youth work, education, medical service, advocacy for the voiceless – it all has to be formed, informed and normed by the apostles’ teaching, or else what the church is about neither speaks Christ nor reflects him.

 

IIb: — The second thing we must do in manifesting our unity is to love the people Christ brings to us. I’m always impressed that the apostle Paul, who speaks so largely about faith and so emphatically about justification by faith (dear to us descendents of the Reformation); Paul ends his letter to the church in Ephesus with “Grace be with all who love our Lord with love undying.”

I’m moved as often as I recall the risen Lord’s question to Peter, to Peter in his humiliation and shame and remorse and self-disgust in the wake of his denial, a denial born of a 15-year old girl’s remark, “You say you aren’t a Galilean?         You sound like the Galilean soon to be strung up.” The question? – “Do you love me?”

Jesus doesn’t ask Peter, “Do you feel as wretched as you should?” “Do you promise never to deny me again?”         “Do you think you’ll ever be a leader?”  Simply “Do you love me?”  And Peter’s answer, “You know that I love you.”

Tonight I trust you and I do love our Lord with love undying. And I trust we are aware that we love Christ only as we love the body of Christ. We can’t love a severed head – and in any case there is no severed head.

And right here’s the rub.  The church is difficult to love.  Yes, the church is the bride of Christ.  And this bride, we might as well admit, is disfigured, so very disfigured, in fact, as sometimes to be hideous, outright repulsive.  The seventeenth-century Puritans used to speak of the church as “a fair face with an ugly scar.”  How extensive is the scar? How ugly? Is the scarred face even recognizable as the face of the bride?  Nevertheless as often as Christ asks “Do you love me” he asks in the same breath “Do you love those I love, those I’m not ashamed to call my brothers and sisters?”

The church manifests its unity in loving the body of Christ.

 

IIc: —The third thing we must do in manifesting our unity is what we are doing together tonight: worship. “They devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread (the Greek text supplies the definite article: plainly there’s a reference to the Eucharist) and to the prayers.” Four verses later we are told the same people were found in the Jerusalem temple. Plainly they worshipped publicly in the temple; plainly they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; plainly they prayed the prayers of the liturgy.

Worship is essential.  Worship is the one thing the church does that nothing else in our society attempts to do. Worship is nothing less than our public acknowledgement of God’s unspeakable worthiness. God is worthy to be worshipped.

We hear much today about our culture as a culture of narcissism. Narcissism is the state of rendering oneself the measure of everything.  The narcissistic person measures everyone by herself.  She assesses every situation in terms of how it affects her.  She views other people in terms of what they can do for her.  There is no suffering like her suffering; no cause like her cause; no ‘right’ like her ‘right’; and of course no victimization like her victimization.         She’s wholly self-absorbed.  Our culture is indeed narcissistic.

Worship is the one event that takes us out of ourselves. Worship takes us away from ourselves, takes us away from ourselves by taking us up into someone else. When he was exiled on the island of Patmos John didn’t fall into the cesspool of self-pity.  He looked up: “Then I looked, and heard around the throne…thousands and thousands saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.’”

If we are grasped by anything of God’s immensity, God’s inexhaustibility, God’s sheer Godness, how can we not fall on our faces before him and worship?

And yet while we don’t worship God for what he can do to advance our ‘selfist’, narcissistic agendas, we gladly worship himfor what he has done for us in Christ in accord with his agenda.  He has created us. (He didn’t have to.) He bore with his recalcitrant people for centuries (despite unspeakable frustration) as he brought about the fitting moment for visiting us in his Son. He incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth, thereby submitting himself to shocking treatment at the hands of the people he came to rescue.  In the cross he tasted the profoundest self-alienation, as the penalty his just judgement assigned for sin he bore himself, therein sparing us condemnation. He has bound himself to his church and to the world even though the world’s sin and the church’s betrayal grieve him more than we can guess. He has promised never to fail or forsake us regardless of how often we let him down.  Surely to grasp all of this is to see that we owe him everything; it’s to have gratitude swell within us until we have to express it; it’s to have thanksgiving sing inside us until we have to sing it out of us. We worship as our grasp of what God has done for us in Christ impels us to worship.

Our grasp not only what God has done, but also of what God continues to do for us.  God feeds us like a nursing mother (says the prophet Isaiah); God forgives us like a merciful father (says the prophet Hosea); he is saviour of sinners and comforter of the afflicted and benefactor of the bushwhacked. Then of course we want to worship him for what he has done for us and continues to do for us out of his love for us.

And yet even as we ever worship God on account of what he has done for us and continues to do, we worship him ultimately on account of who he is in himself.  God is immense. God is eternal. God is underived.  God is immeasurable: his centre is everywhere and his circumference is nowhere. God alone has life in himself and alone lends life.  God forever moves amidst all that he has created even as he towers infinitely above all that he has created.         God is holy; that is, he is uniquely, irreducibly, uncompromisingly, inalienably GOD. As our apprehension of God overwhelms us we can only prostrate ourselves before him and worship him.

I think that Martin Luther more than anyone else was moved at the compassion and condescension of God, the sheer self-humbling and self-humiliation of God.  I think that John Calvin more than anyone else was overwhelmed at the sheer Godness of God. I think that Jonathan Edwards more than anyone else was startled at the unsurpassable “excellence” of God, as he put it in his idiosyncratic way; startled at the profoundest attractiveness of God; the irresistible “beauty” of God. In other words, Luther was moved above others at what God has done for us; Calvin at who God is in himself; Edwards at the sheer magnetism of it all. And the Christian who gathers it all up in himself is our Jesuit friend, Hans Urs von Balthasar. As often as these men reflected on God they worshipped.

The church manifests its unity at worship.

 

IId: — The fourth thing we must do to manifest our unity is share.  Luke tells us the earliest Christians “had all things in common…they sold their possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.”         In short, they sat loose to what they owned, for they knew that Christ had freed them from being possessed by their possessions.

The passage just quoted has given rise to much controversy in the church. Some people have read it and concluded that scripture forbids private property and requires communism of sorts.  But the text doesn’t support such an interpretation.  The passage tells us early-day Christians exercised hospitality in their homes. Then plainly they hadn’t sold their homes. We should note in this regard that Jesus nowhere forbids private property to all Christians; neither do the apostles.

We should note especially that not even our Mennonite friends in the sixteenth century, those who embraced what’s called the ‘Radical Reformation’; not even our Mennonite friends forbade private property  Menno Simons (after whom the Mennonites are named) wrote, “We…have never taught or practised community of goods.”

In setting the record straight about Acts 2, however, we mustn’t lessen the impact of Luke’s word: early-day Christians were noted for their generosity.  They owned but they didn’t hoard.  They possessed but they weren’t possessed.  They had open hearts, open hands and open homes.  They recognized the needy person’s claim upon their abundance.

Jacques Ellul, wonderful Reformed thinker in France , sobered me the day I read in one of his fine books, “The only freedom we have with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.”

 

IIe: — The fifth thing we must do in manifesting our unity is evangelize.  “Day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved.”

‘Evangelism’ is a word that many find suspect in contemporary society. “We live in an age of pluralism,” such folk say, “and therefore there’s no place for proselytizing.”   The word ‘proselytizing’ suggests something halfway between brutal browbeating and subtle seduction.  “Neither is there any place for propaganda.”  Agreed: propaganda is always to be eschewed.  Evangelism, however, remains something else.  Evangelism, said Dennis Niles (Sri Lankan Methodist), “is one beggar telling another beggar where there is bread.”  Charles Wesley has captured both the substance and the mood of evangelism in his fine hymn, “O let me commend my Saviour to you.”

Evangelism has nothing to do with pressure tactics whether overt or covert. Evangelism, one beggar commending the availability of bread to another beggar, is witness. We should note that witness is something we find everywhere in everyday life.  We move to a new neighbourhood.  We want to find a new dentist.  Do we look up the Yellow Pages, see there are 119 dentists within driving range, and try them out one a time?   We never do this. Instead we ask a neighbour, “Do you know a dentist you can recommend?” – whereupon she gladly recommends a dentist on the basis of what he has done for her.

Evangelism is neither more nor less than recommending Jesus Christ on the basis of our experience of him.  And by this means the Lord ever adds to our numbers those who are being saved.

 

In the spirit of our foreparents in faith, whose embodiment of the gospel we have probed tonight, let us pray not for Christian unity but rather for the manifestation of that unity vouchsafed to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. He, the only head of the church, is never found without his body – which body we recognize as we recognize each other to be sisters and brothers of our blessed Lord, sisters and brothers of whom he will not be ashamed.

 

                                                                                     Victor Shepherd

 

23 January 2011             

Prince of Peace Roman Catholic Church

Ministerial Association of North East Toronto